Dying Creatures: Misogyny and Voyeurism in Sky Atlantic HD’s ‘Penny Dreadful’

Image from here

At first, I really liked the new TV series, Penny Dreadful. (Airing on Showtime in the US.) After all, it was hyped to be a mish-mash of all the best characters of classic Victorian ‘cheap and nasty’ ‘penny dreadfuls’- Mina Harker, Victor Frankenstein and Dorian Gray, as well as Jack the Ripper references and plenty of blood and guts. Plus, it’s even got Eva Green as a spooky iron-jawed medium named Vanessa Ives.

Penny Dreadful Green Penny Dreadful Trailer: Eva Green Invites You To The Shadows

Eva Green as Vanessa Ives

Sounds good, right, and the first episode certainly didn’t disappoint. Apart from a rather predictable sex scene featuring Josh Hartnett and an unnamed (and therefore apparently unimportant) woman, I enjoyed it- it had a good sense of pace, it was dark and ghoulish in places, with lots of mystery (for who exactly is Vanessa Ives?) and murder. (A poor woman and her daughter were brutally murdered, Ripper-style, in a London slum, and there was more than a strong hint that the murder was the work of vampires, who skulked around London with Egyptian hieroglyphs under their skin and red eyes that, sadly, reminded me all too much of Twilight.) Episode Two- ‘Séance’- came around, however, and I was bitterly disappointed. The mystery and suspense carefully built up in the first episode had clearly been replaced by casual murder and dismemberment- most prominently, of women.

Pretty women, lower-class women- it certainly racked up a death toll, including one dead  in the opening credits alone (one of her arms was severed, still holding an apple she was about to eat, with clear nods towards Eve, the mother of all fallen women.) In the middle of the episode, we met another prostitute, this time an Irish one, Brona, played by Billie Piper. Brona is dying quickly and messily from consumption, and in order to make ends meet, she ends up posing nude for Dorian Gray, who has possibly the worst villain haircut I’ve ever seen- his hair is practically curtains falling, rather greasily, over his face.  Photography of this ilk in the Victorian era wasn’t as farfetched as it may sound- photography studios often sold photographic series of nudes or the crime scenes famous villains- anything sensational (and slightly sleazy) to make money. The author of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, was a photographer himself, yet not many people know that he photographed little girls- often naked, or in a state of undress. (For more information, see Carol Mavor’s book, Pleasures Taken.)

It is this macabre, decadent and often horrific Victorian underworld which Penny Dreadful clearly wishes to expose, and yet I wonder- why does it have to be situation around the exposure of women? For as soon as Dorian (or Curtains, as I like to think of him,) finds out that his latest photographic subject has consumption, his eyes light up with sheer, unbridled glee. Pity, sympathy or even plain old humanity appear to be beyond him. “I’ve never  f****d a dying creature before,” he says eagerly. As the shutter flashes  he proceeds to do just that, whilst the camera is angled so that most of her body is covered by his back, so that for most of the shot, her face is not seen. (Episode 1 did this pose as well.) The old, whiskered man operating the camera is commanded by Dorian to shoot on- so that there is multiple layers of voyeurism in one scene: not just one voyeur, but three- when the camera itself becomes an all seeing eye, capable to capturing not just seduction, but also terrible pain. It seems that, in Penny Dreadful, women only matter if they are in some form of emotional or physical agony- sometimes both. And then, as if to prove my point, he asks: “Do you feel pain?” 

Dorian Gray in Penny Dreadful

Clearly the idea of anyone feeling pain is much more than just a novelty to him- it is also a deeply disturbing titillation. I love Wilde’s original Dorian, his dream of the perfect, if rather self-obsessed boy youth, a new and decadent Narcissus.  I was hoping that there would be some homoerotic element to him (an element which Camille Paglia dissects wonderfully in her book Sexual Personae,) as well as other writers and critics. So far, the gentle way at which the character of Victor Frankenstein strokes at his own throat- to instruct his so-called ‘monster’ how to swallow- is, I feel, the most frankly erotic moment yet in the whole series.  That moment did more for me than any of this brashly heterosexual Dorian’s panting and rasping. When his new lover coughs blood on him, in a viscerally disturbing moment, he appears thrilled by this sudden and unexpected outpouring of not only mortality, but one girl’s slow, ground-out agony.

He also appears the same way- vain, arrogant, cruel and cunning- when courting Vanessa Ives, a woman who (unfortunately) doesn’t appear to mind his unfortunate hairstyle. Yet another woman surely about to surrender to Dorian, heterosexual battering-ram. But when she falls into a trance, in the middle of a séance (another Victorian obsession) she turns her attention on to her colleague, Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton, no less.) Enacting what is presumably his daughter’s death, she then proclaims him a ‘beast, a man, a creature!’ with obvious gusto. But then her denouncement becomes lost in a feral cry, an unending scream and a back-bend that reduces her, not him, to the status of an animal. Once again there is more cries for ‘blood, blood’ and a liberal splashing of profanities- including the ‘c-word’, which I find offensive, and in this context, completely meaningless. The next wordless scene shows her picking up an anonymous man in a rain-drenched street and having sex with him- almost soundlessly- whilst Dorian Gray (ever present, ever repulsive) looks on, smirking. Everything culminates with Vanessa, wrapped up, child-like and almost sedated, in bed, and poor Brona so took Dorian’s fancy goes back to the nightly grind of gents, alcohol and more bloody coughing.

In short- will I be watching it again? No. Because I, unlike almost-ludicrously predatory Dorian, do feel pain, and I feel pain at the proliferation of beaten, abused, dying women I see in dramas on TV nowadays. All the sophisticated cinematography and intricate plotting can’t hide the fact that there’s still an awful lot of dead or dying women in Penny Dreadful.


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